“But we are,” she said, and they were, no matter how powerfully her body was trying to convince her otherwise.
“Then what are you doing, watching sunrises and drinking tea with him?”
“You’re right. What am I doing? I don’t know what I’m doing.” She thought of what she should be doing: getting herself to Morocco to find Razgut; flying through that slash in the sky to… Eretz. A chill snaked through her. She’d been so focused on getting gavriels that she’d avoided thinking too much about what it would be like to actually go, and now with Akiva’s depiction of his world fresh in her mind—war-torn, bleak—dread crept over her; suddenly, she didn’t want to go anywhere.
What was she supposed to do when she got there, anyway? Fly up to the bars of that forbidding fortress and politely ask if Brimstone was at home?
“Speaking of enemies,” Zuzana said, “Jackass was on TV this morning.”
“Good for him,” said Karou, still in her own thoughts.
“No. Not good. Bad. Bad Jackass.”
“Oh no. What did he do?”
“Well, while you’ve been watching sunrises with your enemy, the news has been all over you, and a certain actor has been most helpful, preening for the camera and telling the world all about you. Like, um, bullet scars? He’s made you out to be some kind of gangster’s moll—”
“Moll? Please. If anything, I’m the gangster—”
“Anyway,” Zuzana cut her off. “I’m sorry to say that whatever anonymity you might have had, blue-haired girl, your flying stunt put an end to it. The police are probably at your flat—”
“Yeah. They’re calling your fight a ‘disturbance’ and saying they just want to talk to the, er, people involved, if anyone knows their whereabouts.”
Akiva, seeing her distress, wanted to know what was being said; she quickly translated. His look darkened. He stood and moved to the door, glancing out. “Will they come for you here?” he asked. Karou saw the protectiveness in his stance, shoulders hunched and tense, and she realized that in his world, such a threat might be much more dire.
“It’s okay,” she assured him. “It’s not like that. They would just ask questions. Really.” He didn’t move away from the door. “We didn’t break any laws.” She turned to Zuzana and switched to Czech. “It’s not like there’s a law against flying.”
“Yes there is. The law of gravity. The point is that you are looked for.” She shot a glance at the waitress, who was skulking nearby and most certainly eavesdropping. “Isn’t that right?”
The waitress blushed. “I haven’t called anyone,” she was quick to say. “You’re okay to stay here. Do… do you want more tea?”
Zuzana waved her off and told Karou, “You can’t stay here forever, obviously.”
“So what’s the plan?”
Plan. Plan. She had a plan, and it was near its fruition. All she had to do now was go. Leave her life here, leave school, her flat, Zuzana, Akiva… No. Akiva was not part of her life. Karou looked at him, watchful in the doorway, ready to protect her, and she tried to imagine walking away from the… placeness… of him, the rightness, the patch of sunlight, the pull. All she had to do was get up and leave. Right?
A moment passed in silence, and Karou’s body did not so much as twitch in response to the idea of leaving.
“The plan,” she said, exerting a massive effort of will and facing up to it. “The plan is to go away.”
Akiva had been looking out the door, and only when he pivoted to face her did she realize she’d spoken in Chimaera, addressing this to him.
“Eretz,” she said, standing up. “I told you. I’m going to find my family.”
Dismay spread over his face as understanding dawned. “You really have a way to get there.”
“I really do.”
“There are more portals than just yours.”
“There were. All knowledge of them was lost with the magi. It took me years to find this one—”
“You’re not the only one who knows things, I guess. Though I would rather you showed me the way.”
“Than who?” He was thinking, trying to figure it out, and Karou saw by the flicker of disgust when he did. “The Fallen. That thing. You’re going to that thing.”
“Not if you take me instead.”
“I truly can’t. Karou. The portal is under guard—”
“Well then. Maybe I’ll see you on the other side sometime. Who knows?”
A rustle from his unseen wings sent sparks shivering across the floor. “You can’t go there. There’s no kind of life there, trust me.”
Karou turned away from him and picked up her coat, slipping it on and fanning out her hair, which had a damp mermaid quality to it and lay in coils over her shoulders. She told Zuzana that she was leaving town, and she was fending off her friend’s inevitable queries when Akiva took her elbow.
Gently. “You can’t go with that creature.” His expression was guarded, hard to read. “Not alone. If he knows another portal, I can come with you and make sure you’re safe.”
Karou’s first impulse was to refuse. Be that cat. Be that cat. But who was she fooling? That wasn’t the cat she wanted to be. She didn’t want to go alone—or alone with Razgut, which was worse. Her heart hammering, she said, “Okay,” and once the decision was made, a tremendous burden of dread lifted.
She wouldn’t have to part with Akiva.
WHAT’S A DAY?
What’s a morning? Karou asked herself. A part of her was already flying into the future, imagining what her reunion with Brimstone would be like, but another part of her was settled firmly in her skin, mindful of the heat of Akiva’s arm against her shoulder. They were walking down Nerudova with Zuzana, against the flow of tourists heading up to the castle, and they had to press close to navigate a horde of Germans in sensible shoes.
She had her hair tucked away in a hat, borrowed from the waitress, so her most obvious feature was disguised. Akiva was still drawing an inordinate amount of attention, but Karou thought it was mostly because of his otherworldly beauty, and not recognition from the news.
“I have to stop by school,” Zuzana said. “Come with me.”
Karou wanted to go there anyway—it was part of her good-bye program—so she agreed. She’d have to wait until nightfall anyway to get back in her flat, if the police were watching it. After dark she could return by way of sky and balcony, instead of street and elevator, and get the things she’d need for her journey.
What’s a day? she asked herself, and there was a buzzing happiness in her that she had to admit had a lot to do with the way Akiva had stood in the teahouse doorway, and the solidity of him beside her now in all its rightness.
There was wrongness, too, faint and flickering, but she attributed that to nerves, and as the morning went by in its buzz of unlooked-for happiness, she kept brushing it aside, unconsciously, as one might fan at a fly.
Karou said her good-byes to the Lyceum—in her head only, not wanting to alarm Zuzana—and, afterward, to Poison Kitchen. She laid a fond hand on the marble flank of Pestilence, and ran her fingers over the slightly ratty velvet of the settee. Akiva took the place in with a puzzled expression, coffins and all, and called it “morbid.” He ate a bowl of goulash, too, but Karou didn’t think he would be asking for the recipe anytime soon.
She saw her two haunts with new eyes, being there with him, and was humbled to think how little she had really internalized the fact of the wars that had shaped them. At school, some joker had scrawled a red graffiti volnost—liberty—where freedom fighters had once written it in Nazi blood, and in Poison she had to explain gas masks to Akiva, and that they came from a different war than the volnost did.
“These are from World War One,” she said, putting one on. “A hundred years ago. The Nazis came later.” She gave him a tart sideward glance. “And just so you know, the invaders are always the bad guys. Always.”
Mik joined them, and it was a little strained at first, because he didn’t know anything of other worlds and other races, and believed Karou was just eccentric. She told him the truth—that they had really been flying, and that Akiva was an angel from another world—but in her accustomed manner, so that he thought she was teasing him. But his eyes kept going to Akiva with the same kind of astonished appraisal as everyone else’s did, and Karou, watching, saw that it made Akiva uncomfortable. It struck her that there was nothing in his manner at all to suggest he knew the power of his beauty.
Later the four of them walked onto the Charles Bridge. Mik and Zuzana were a few steps ahead, entwined as if nothing could ever shoehorn them apart, Karou and Akiva trailing.
“We can leave for Morocco tonight,” Karou said. “I was going to take an airplane, but I don’t think that’s an option for you.”
“No. You’d need a passport, a document saying your nationality, which tends to assume you are from this actual world.”
“You can still fly, yes?”
Karou tested her ability, rising a discreet few inches off the ground and coming right back down. “It’s a long way, though.”
“I’ll help you. Even if you couldn’t fly, I could carry you.”
She imagined crossing the Alps and the Mediterranean in Akiva’s arms. It wasn’t the worst thing she could think of, but still. She was no damsel in distress. “I’ll manage,” she said.
Up ahead, Mik dipped Zuzana into a back-bending kiss, and Karou came to a halt, flustered by their display. She turned to the bridge railing and looked out over the river. “It must be weird for you just doing nothing all day.”
Akiva nodded. He was looking out, too, leaning on the railing, one of his elbows against hers. It didn’t escape Karou’s notice that he found subtle ways of touching her. “I keep trying to imagine my own people living like this, and I can’t.”
“How do they live?” she asked.
“War is all. If they’re not fighting it, they’re providing for it, and living in fear, always. There is no one without loss.”
“And the chimaera? What are their lives like?”
He hesitated. “There’s no good life there for anyone. It’s not a safe place.” He laid a hand on her arm. “Karou, your life is here, in this world. If Brimstone cares about you, he can’t want you to go to that broken place. You should stay.” His next words were a whisper. She barely heard them, and afterward wasn’t entirely sure she had. He said, “I could stay here with you.”
His grip was firm and it was soft; his hand on her arm was warm and it was right. Karou let herself pretend, just for a moment, that she could have what he had whispered: a life with him. Everything she had always craved was right here: solidity, a mooring, love.
The word, when it came to her, wasn’t jarring or preposterous, as when Zuzana had uttered it that morning at the teahouse. It was tantalizing. Karou didn’t think. She reached for Akiva’s hand.
And shocked a pulse into it.
She jerked back. Her hamsa. She’d laid it full against his skin. Her palm burned, and Akiva had been knocked back a step. He stood there holding his magic-scorched hand to his body as a shudder passed through him. His jaw was clenched with the endurance of pain.
“I can’t even touch you,” Karou said. “Whatever Brimstone wants for me, it’s not you, or he wouldn’t have given me these.” Her own hands, clasped tight to her chest, felt evil to her in that moment. She reached into her collar and fished up her wishbone, took it into her hand and held it tight, for comfort.
Akiva said, “You don’t have to want what he wants.”
“I know that. But I have to know what’s happening there. I have to know.” Her voice was ragged; she wanted him to understand, and he did. She saw it in his eyes, and with it the helplessness and anguish she’d seen in glints and glimmers since he had come into her life the night before. Only the night before. It was unbelievable it had been so short a time.
“You don’t have to come with me.”
“Of course I’m coming with you. Karou…” His voice was still whisper-soft. “Karou.” He reached out and eased the hat from her head so that her hair spilled out in a splash of blue, and he tucked an errant strand behind her ear. He took her face in his hands and a sunburst went off in Karou’s chest. She held herself quiet, her motionlessness belying the rushing within her. No one had ever looked at her like Akiva was right now, his eyes held wide as if he wanted take more of her into himself, like light through a window.
One of his hands slipped softly around to the nape of her neck, twining through her hair and sending frissons of longing through her body. She felt herself giving way, melting toward him. One booted foot slid forward so her knee brushed his and settled against it, and the remaining space between them—negative space, it was called in drawing—called out to be closed.
Was he going to kiss her?
Oh god, did she have goulash breath?
Never mind. He had it, too.
Did she want him to kiss her?
His face was so close she could see the sun dusky on his lashes, and her own face centered in the deep black of his pupils. He was gazing into her eyes as if there were worlds within her, wonders and discoveries.
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